Grinding to a Halt

Penn State's ground game continues to founder against Syracuse even as Nittany Lions improve to 2-0 with a second straight easy win.

It was supposed to be a naked bootleg. Daryll Clark was going to roll out and wait for someone to pop open in the end zone or find an opening himself and carry it in if necessary. He was confident it was going to work.

But the ball ended up on grass after a bad exchange, and the fourth-and-goal play didn't end up as the triumphant capstone to a 96-yard touchdown drive; it ended up instead as an emblem of Penn State's difficulties up front, difficulties that have tempered the enthusiasm over the Nittany Lions' 2-0 start as they look to reassemble their offensive line from the remnants of last year's stellar group.

Stefen Wisniewski took the blame for the botched exchange, which denied Penn State an opportunity to take a 14-0 lead over Syracuse at the start of the second quarter.

“I tried to change my stance up a little bit,” the junior center said. “Those [Syracuse] guys were so low, and that screwed me up. I've got to stay with the same stance no matter what's going on.”

But there was plenty of frustration to go around as the Lions came off the field. They'd run five plays from inside the Syracuse 4-yard line and couldn't score. Said Joe Paterno, “I don't think we were very good on the goal line.”

They had difficulties elsewhere, too. Penn State averaged 2.2 yards per carry against Syracuse, gaining just 78 yards as a team. Evan Royster, who gained 101 yards on 13 carries against the Orange last year, managed only 41 on Saturday, for an average of 3.4 per carry.

The Lions won handily, 28-7. But the absence of a strong running game, coming on the heels of an up-and-down opener against Akron, couldn't help but give pause. Said tackle Dennis Landolt, “It's important to establish the run and kind of set a tone. That helps control the whole game. The coaches want to do that, and so do we.”

The Nittany Lions made changes in hope of getting their offensive line to jell, pulling starting guards Matt Stankiewitch and Lou Eliades in favor of redshirt sophomores Quinn Barham and Johnnie Troutman. Both said they feel as though the depth chart is still in flux, even with the Big Ten opener looming in two weeks.

“We got a lot of time last week [against Akron],” Barham said. “We got some time today. Like the coaches have said, the jobs are still up for grabs. Me and Johnnie, we're not going to just sit back and say, 'We're second-team guys now.' There's a chance we could still be first-team. But either way, we're all going to go at it and work hard. As long as we go hard and score touchdowns and win, that's the only thing that matters.”

Paterno said the team's difficulties on the ground Saturday stemmed partly from a Syracuse defensive scheme that kept the safeties up near the line of scrimmage to shut down the running game, essentially daring the Nittany Lions to beat them through the air.

The Lions did exactly that, as Clark passed for 240 yards and three touchdowns. But they are striving for offensive balance and know they will face moments this season when they will need to pick up tough yards on the ground. They also know the caliber of the opposition will skyrocket in two weeks when the Big Ten season begins at home against Iowa.

While the running game has been inconsistent so far, the Lions have been effective pass blockers; Clark has been sacked just once this year even though he's thrown 71 passes in two games. Surprising? Not to Landolt.

“Through spring and through preseason, we were solid in pass blocking against our defense, which is obviously a good front,” he said. “But I'm surprised the run game hasn't come around. We just need to work on it, and we need to get into a rhythm when we get into the game. We can't have one good run here and a bad one there. We have to keep going forward.”


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